Is romantic love (or even ecstatic love) possible in an absurd world? Laugh It Up, Stare It Down’s hero Joe and heroine Cleo think it is worth the effort. After we see them meeting cute (he stops her on the street and tells her he is her destiny), we follow their affair and later marriage over the next 25 years. On the level of an absurd world, they go to a French restaurant in which the menus are blank and no food is ready, the hospital loses their new born baby, they are subjected to a home invasion by a thief who wants a transfer of money, and are told of an approaching hurricane at their summer home by a woman with terminal cancer. On the ecology level, they visit Venice as it is just about to sink and get caught up in a tidal wave which destroys their Rhode Island summer house. On the personal level, they must deal with adultery and infidelity, and the divorce of their best friends.
The dialogue is droll and has the old-fashioned rhythm of a tennis game, like that in the Hollywood comedies of the 1930’s. This is the kind of comedy in which someone says, “Books do furnish a room” or speaks of novels by Trollope and paintings by Balthus. Periodically something is said of a philosophical nature, (“There is a potential for disaster in everything” or “There is a point … We just don’t know what it is,”) but there is no follow-through. The problem is that the serious or social commentary is diminished by the light-weight and superficial banter as if no one takes their plight seriously. The kind of romantic comedy that this is attempting to copy had messages like “You can’t take it with you” or “Love is better than money” or “You can be happy on nothing a year.” While Laugh It Up, Stare Down suggests that you have to put a good face on the bad things that happen, it is unable to sustain a more profound message about the state of the world. The play ends on an enigmatic note: we do not know if Joe and Cleo will survive the next 25 years the way the world is today.
As directed by Chris Eigeman, Jayce Bartok and Katya Campbell as the hero and heroine are quite personable and genial in a superficial way. This is the fault of the writing, not their performances. It is difficult to be deep while attempting to spout smart repartee continually. The other two actors, Maury Ginsberg and Amy Hargreaves, play four characters each including the staff of the hospital, the wait staff at the restaurant and their best friends Stephen and Dorothy. Hargreaves is more convincing in these various guises, while Ginsberg is not always believable when required to put on an accent. The unit set by Kevin Judge quickly converts to various locales in this 12-scened play, allowing for quick transitions. Jennifer Caprio’s costumes are always chic as you would expect in a play about upscale characters. The realistic lighting, for both the day and night time scenes, is the work of Matthew J. Fick. The sprightly original music and sound design has been composed by Peter Salett.
Laugh It Up, Stare It Down is an attempt to update that old-fashioned form, the 1930’s romantic comedy, with contemporary content. While the play is pleasant and entertaining, its periodic suggestions of deeper messages about marriage, ecology and this irrational world we live in cannot be carried by the lightness of the material or the tone of the direction. Joe and Cleo may live in an absurd world but they seem to survive their crises just fine without any tragic consequences.
Laugh It Up, Stare It Down (through October 10, 2015)
The Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, west of Seventh Avenue South, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101/866-811-4111 or visit http://www.LaughItUpPlay.com
Running time: one hour and 35 minutes including one intermission